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She can foresee the future of architecture

Issue n° 1, Spring & Summer 2010

The Japanese architect is cherished for her breathtaking buildings such as the New Museum in New York City and the Glass Pavilion in Toledo, Ohio. And now she is the first woman to have taken on the directorship of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy, opening in August this year. The prestigious event will give an even bigger platform to Kazuyo Sejima’s ideas about building. With her architectural practice, SANAA, she envisions a style that is fluid, transparent and intertwined with nature. Sejima is travelling the globe, meeting with the world’s other great architects in search of the concepts and the work that will make up the most important architectural exhibition in the world.

A chain-smoker who is precise of word, Sejima is an admirer of the work of Comme des Garçons, for whom she recently designed an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo.

Architecture is full of roaring egos as big as the buildings it creates, and Kazuyo Sejima isn’t one of them. Just like her projects, she’s whispered her way into the architectural landscape but managed to become one of the industry’s most important practitioners in the process. The silvery New Museum in Manhattan – that’s one of hers. The mercurial shelter that was last year’s Serpentine Pavilion – Sejima again. Together with her architectural partner, Ryue Nishizawa, and their practice, SANAA, she conjures up the most delicate of buildings – designs that quietly commune with nature or slip gently into a city street. “I’ve heard,” says one young London architect I know, “that she has a tremendous aura.” Which could be one way of describing someone who thinks a lot and says little.

This year, Sejima (known always by her family name – the emphasis sort of falls as in “hedgetrimmer”) is going to have to say rather a lot more. As director of the 2010 Architecture Biennale in Venice, opening in September, she will be the profession’s poster girl, mouthpiece, arbiter. Which is why the second time I meet her, she is scurrying through the late-Gothic halls of the Biennale building in Venice on a sun-drenched day in January. Just tipping 152cm in her medium-heeled Prada boots, and looking teacherly efficient in a navy wool Comme pinafore, she brings a room of 80 Italian journalists to a halt when she enters. The convivial Biennale chairman, Paolo Baratta, glass of Prosecco in hand, introduces her as “one of the most highly qualified representatives of the new masters of architecture.” Sejima, through an interpreter, says: “I have a dream that architecture can bring something to contemporary society. Architecture is how people meet in space.” This sounds utopian and dreamy, until you consider her work. Like her, it is as strong and functional in reality as it is seemingly fragile and floating at first glance.

The first time I meet Sejima, we are in Paris and she is on a whistle-stop tour of Europe. The night before, she’d had dinner with Rem Koolhaas in Amsterdam, and in the space of six days was taking in London, Venice and Belgium. In all these cities, she is visiting architects whom she might like to include in her Biennale, but she doesn’t want me to know who they are. Her trusty aide, Sam Chermayeff, is constantly by her side – a tall, dashing 28-year-old American architect in a Margiela jacket and satiny overcoat who seems entirely invested in Sejima’s wellbeing. (Sam is also design aristocracy: son of graphics legend Ivan, grandson of Modernist architect Serge, who designed the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.) They have matching old-fashioned cardboard suitcases and sometimes he speaks on her behalf.

As with Venice’s better-known Art Biennale, its architectural sister, which started in 1980, happens every other year and intends to present an international snapshot of where we are now. Of course, how you actually do that when it comes to architecture is rather more complicated: with art you bring the work itself; with architecture you somehow have to convey the ideas. Previous directors have frequently struggled and failed. “Hmm, very challenging,” says Sejima quietly in English, lighting another cigarette. But maybe this year will be different. Previous directors have never been female or Asian, and in recent years, they have been chosen from the ranks of critics and theorists rather than architects. For Sejima, however, a Japanese female architect, only the third thing counts. “Being an architect. I am just interested in making architecture.”

If that makes her sound a little scary, well yes, she is – driven, focused, entirely her own person and, let me tell you, not desperately keen on interviews. (“Sometimes I have interviews. I don’t always say yes.”) Nothing comes before work. She is rumoured to have missed a sitting with a world famous photographer a couple of years back, around the time of the New Museum opening, though she did find time later to pose for an Annie Leibovitz shoot in American Vogue.

And if this makes her sound brittle, that would be a lie. She has a tumultuous passion for her subject and sometimes a tantalising smile for her interlocutors. She is neat and sharp and pointy of edge, moving fast and thinking slowly. She smokes incessantly but still looks alarmingly youthful for her 53 years. Jan Schlottmann, the business and life partner of fashion designer Derek Lam, for whom Sejima has designed a New York store, says, “She is elegant, chic, intelligent, beautiful. And the best of everything you’d want in a friend.” Florian Idenburg, a Dutch architect who worked in her Japanese office for nearly eight years, mentions her “incredible taste and incredible kindness”. Her architecture is completely wedded to the idea of integrating building and nature and centred around the happiness of the human experience in it.

Sejima’s rise has been far from sudden. She was born in 1956 in Hitachi, where her father worked for the electronics company, and the family lived in a modern company house. She studied architecture at Japan’s Women’s University (not her first choice; that was Hokkaido – she was enthralled by its crack ice-hockey team at the time), and went on to work for the Japanese architect Toyo Ito, among the most innovative and impressive in the profession. In 1987 she set up her own company and in 1992 she was named Japan’s young architect of the year for her design of a women’s dormitory in Kyushu, two hours south of Tokyo by train. By 1995, she had founded SANAA with her former employee (some say former lover, though nobody seems to have any proof) Ryue Nishizawa, ten years her junior. Between them they have sprinkled lyrical, translucent buildings throughout Japan and around the world. Now she is probably the most sought-after architect in Japan, which, in both a male-dominated culture and profession, is truly remarkable.

Sejima was photographed at Studio 146 on Boulevard de Charonne, Paris, during a day-long stopover between Amsterdam and Venice.

The SANAA office is a very particular place. For Sejima it is her family, though she is extremely close to her mother, too. “Someone once asked to make a film of her at home,” recalls Florian Idenburg. “So she directed them straight to the office.” The staff of 30 work until two or three in the morning and at weekends. They come from Japan and beyond (lured by a Sejima and Nishizawa lecture at their university, often) for total SANAA immersion. It’s as much monastery as studio, where endless contemplation and focus eventually lead to enlightenment: architecture as devotion.

“Everyone’s wearing black and smoking,” says Idenberg. “Or eating. You either get thin or fat. And you’re there so much that all rationality disappears. The old office was worse – it had no windows. It makes you fantasise about the place you’d rather be, thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be in a pavilion in a forest?’ But in the end it’s all about looking for the best, the smartest, the most beautiful solution.” Sejima is also opposed to the notion of speed. “I’m not such an efficient person. I just continue thinking. Time is important. This is slow architecture,” she tells me.

The results of all this thinking, as you might well imagine, are a long way from the rationalist boxes and the hefty one-liners of much early 21st-century architecture. Look at the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, where glass objects are seen through the slight distortion of curving glass walls that form a maze inside the see-through building. Or the New Museum, where six boxes (each worked to reflect the scale of the surrounding buildings) perch asymmetrically, one on top of the other, like a child’s plaything. Their perforated aluminium covering glitters in the sun and glistens in the rain. “I was afraid of that building. I didn’t want to make an office block,” says Sejima. “That’s why the separate blocks have the same proportion as the buildings around them. People seem to know it’s something cultural.”

Its stepping façade has become symbolic of the area’s regeneration. It was also this building that attracted Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, with Hans Ulrich Obrist, to ask Sejima and Nishizawa to design their annual pavilion. “In our world,” says Peyton-Jones, referring to the world of galleries, “the New Museum has proven to be such a success and there’s nothing more exciting. It’s a New York landmark. Because of the architecture? Oh God, yes!” At the Serpentine, says Chermayeff, “there were a lot of ideas about mimicking nature – a cloud, a river.” Eventually it became a mirror-polished steel canopy that snaked away from the main building, reflecting the surrounding greenery of the park and seeming to be the twin of the Serpentine’s lake over the road – the twin that had just come home for the summer. Practically speaking, as ephemeral as a cloud.

“Being an architect. I am just interested in making architecture.”

Size seems to be no obstacle to Sejima’s continual lust for lightness, where barriers always dissolve and the outside is never completely separated from the interior. At the Derek Lam store on New York’s Crosby Street at the bottom of SoHo, interior glass pods (made by an aquarium specialist in Las Vegas; they arrived on a flatbed truck that had been held up in bad winds) create diaphanous divisions within which the sculptural clothes can be displayed but not overwhelmed. For the Flower House, designed for a European couple and not yet built, an entirely transparent acrylic structure contains both rooms and gardens that flow through the space. (The guest rooms are advisedly in a separate building). The new Louvre outpost, a major new project that has just broken ground at Lens in northern France, will comprise seven linked buildings, including one with a particularly long glass canopy supported by a polished aluminium structure. The landscape will be reflected unevenly in its slightly curving glass walls.

Of course, one person’s evanescence is another person’s lack of substance. The school of SANAA is not without its detractors, who feel that the work is frail and flimsy, as etiolated as the staff that work so hard and smoke so much. The Japanese architect Souhei Imamura was in London recently and commented on this type of design during a talk at the Japan Foundation. He called it weak and light and its exponents vegetarians and grass eaters; he seemed to have them down as some sort of neo-hippies.

Sejima is no such thing: too steely for hippydom; too ambitious in her aims; too wedded to the pure aestheticism of objects and buildings. She tells me that she likes shopping and collecting. “Small things – a box, or a plate; I’ll find them on the street or in the airport. I like flowers.” Idenburg repeats this when I speak to him later. “She has incredible taste; she finds eclectic, wonderful things.” She is so enamoured of Comme des Garçons that she recently designed an exhibition for Rei Kawakubo of the showpieces from the 1990s until now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Kawakubo once said something along these lines: “I work hard to make these clothes and I expect people to work hard to wear them.”

You can well imagine that bringing a silent smile to Sejima’s lips. For the show, 32 pieces of fashion/art were distributed through the gallery in Sejima’s now trademark bubbles of acrylic; colours from the clothing reflected in the internal walls like splashes of paint. Some who visited declared the exhibition as beautiful as the clothes.

While Sejima is unerringly the mistress of her Tokyo empire, she will find it less easy to control the Venice Biennale. Architects come from all over the world. Ideas clash and cacophony can ensue. The director dictates a theme (in this case the ungainly People Meet in Architecture) and the exhibitors ignore it, or misinterpret it. Sejima, though, is determined to come through with her concept intact – that this will be a display of architecture as experience and sensation, not a show-and-tell of plans and photographs. As Idenburg says, and rightly so, “it might not be the best-argued Architecture Biennial, but it will definitely be the most beautiful.” For her part, Sejima has proved that she may not be the loudest or most forceful of architects, but that subtlety certainly has its place. In a world that’s had its fill of recent excess, the quiet ways of Sejima seem about to set the new agenda.